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The curious truth about school success

  • Written by Erica Peterson, Campus Manager, Dartmoor School Woodinville

What makes a student successful? Ask Sophie von Stumm, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Edinburgh, and she’ll tell you that it’s not just a matter of IQ. In fact, her review of 200 studies of school success turned up a simple, yet commonly overlooked ingredient in the magic potion of academic success predictors: curiosity.

Stumm calls it having a “hungry mind.” “If you’re intellectually curious, you’ll go home, you’ll read the books. If you’re perceptually curious, you might go traveling to foreign countries and try different foods,” she notes in a press release for the Association for Psychological Science (Curiosity par.4). Either way, curiosity feeds the brain’s capacity to gather, organize and process new ideas and new experiences.

But what exactly is curiosity, and how do parents and educators harness this powerful force to help boost the success of the students who need it the most? Put simply, curiosity measures not how well students think, but how much they enjoy thinking and willingly engage in thinking tasks. In the studies reviewed by Stumm, curiosity was assessed with a common psychological measure called the Typical Intellectual Engagement Scale. This assessment has participants report how often they engage in activities that involve brain power, such as reading philosophy and news, enjoying art, or just thinking about life. Students who like these tasks tend to also participate in them frequently, and students who participate in thinking tasks develop their mental muscle.

Tragically, many students who would typically benefit from this powerful force for intellectual development lose their curiosity early on. For some students, repeated failures in school can cause burn-out; for others, too much homework causes intellectual activity to be associated with feelings of frustration.

For curiosity to exert its power, intellectual activity needs to be fun. That’s great news for parents and educators, who can help students to find the venues for intellectual exercise that are most appealing.

“Teachers have a great opportunity to inspire curiosity in their students, to make them engaged and independent learners. That is very important,” comments Stumm (Curiosity par. 6).

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